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Newspapers: don’t Fark yourselves to death

it’s been more than 15 years since the newspaper industry knew how to compete for circulation or revenues

 

In 2006 the now-defunct magazine Business 2.0 effused over the profit-potential of blogging with a story based on a handful of money-making sites. After an instructive anecdote about BoingBoing (which took about 15 years to become an overnight sensation) the article fawned over Fark.com, a web site founded in 1999 by 35-year-old Drew Curtis, the self-style personification of Joe Sixpack (his Facebook page calls beer his religion). The article describes Fark.com as “a collection of reader-submitted links to amusing videos, jokes, and curiosities from all over the Web.” In short, all things sophomoric. Business 2.0 dwelt on its success as measured in eyeballs (then 40 million pageviews per month) and clicks (advertising revenues were supposedly on track to hit $600,000). The article quoted Web 2.0 darlingJohn Battelle as predicting that Fark.com would become the first independent blog to earn a million a year in profit.

As I fret over the increasingly sensational drift of mainstream media it strikes me that news industry executives have taken the wrong message from the popularity of Fark.com and other lowest-common-denominator sites. And not surprisingly so because it’s been more than 15 years since the newspaper industry knew how to compete for circulation or revenues. That may sound harsh but consider these two facts from the Newspaper Association of America website. Paid circulation peaked and started down in the early 1990s, before the Internet. We wallpapered over the problem because, until recently, we had few meaningful competitors for display and classified advertising (see first column — revenues rise as audience drops).

So I would suggest that the New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell got the verb tense wrong when he blogged about 15 months ago that:

“We are dismantling the institution of newspaper journalism precisely at the moment when it seems to be of greatest social value.” (emphasis added)

We were dismantling our own industry by resting on our laurels. Now we are misinterpreting the medium — the Internet — and its message — think niche.

I think the 21st Century newspaper business model is a nutritious blend of FARKish snacks (aimed at the 9-5 browser who needs brief workday diversions) and the New Yorkerish fare (to fulfill the quality and public service expectations of our brand). We will create this blend by using staff-written blogs to drill down into our audiences (as I outlined Monday) and by empowering our rank-and-file to become mini-publishers (as I argue in “The Pyramid and the Cloud“).

Today I will outline the business model to support this scheme but first let me briefly say why I think it would be suicidal for newspapers to race Joe Sixpack to the bottom.

Fark.com and similar sites have first-mover advantage. They’ve cornered the dumb and dumber market at costs newspaper could not approximate even if they “rationalized” their organizations the same way that Herculescleansed the Augean stables.

Business 2.0 said Drew Curtis ran Fark.com with two part-timer programmers; he avoided web hosting costs (upwards of $10,000 a month?); he avoids labor costs by getting users to generate his crap. Is that where the news industry want to go? Even if media corporations could get so FARKin’ lean as to be profitable at the low end, they would find few memo or meeting opportunities in a 3-person shop.

So let me suggest that we aim newspapers and other mass media at higher value markets as was initially suggested to me by UC Berkeley professor Hal Varian, who is also chief economist to Google.

Now in all honesty, Hal Varian didn’t tell me in just so many words what I’m about to tell you. After all he’s got a better clientele these days. But let me take you back to late 1994 when I heard Varian, then a professor at the University of Michigan, speak at the Mathematical Sciences Research Institute in Berkeley. The incident sticks in my mind after all these years because it was one of the first assignments I drew after returning from a 12-day strike.

Over and above being happy to still have a job, I knew that the assignment had been “suggested” by Will Hearst, then publisher of the San Francisco Examiner and, more importantly, the person who had interviewed me by phone in 1992 when I told him the little white lie that landed me a temporary job as a science writer (thanks, Keay Davidson, for taking leave to iron out those “Wrinkles in Time“).

I had prepared for that interview by networking with science writers David PerlmanCharles Petit and Jane Ellen Stevens. From them I learned that Will was a devotee of abstract math. I was not. But when he asked me during our long-distance interview what sorts of science I liked to cover, I told him earth science, climate change, health and biology — and then added added math. As I recall we spent the rest of the conversation talking about how difficult it was to get math stories into the paper. When then-Deputy Managing Editor Tim Porter called two days later to hire me (thanks for “top Guild minimum,” dude) the fix was in.

So all of this was in the back of my mind as I wandered that conference beautiful minds — all of whom were taking way over my head. The only lecture that made any sense was this Hal Varian guy saying something to the effect that business of all kinds would have to learn how to charge different prices for the same thing. He cited the airline industry as an example, noting that two passengers sitting side-by-side routinely pay different fares depending on factors like when they purchased the ticket. I blogged about this once before but I searched Nexis yesterday without finding a daily, so I’m guessing my then-business editor Katie Rabin let me off the hook for writing a daily.

So this idea must have been rattling around, uselessly, in my head for about 14 years, until it was catalyzed a few months back by a discussion I had with a trade press publisher. I will keep that name private but I learned how this particular trade press grouo was preparing to harvest high-value, pay-per-click ads by getting a few items of registration data — e-mail address, age, gender and zip code.

Of course the problem with such an approach is how to get even such modest registration data from browsers who refuse to register for much of anything. The answer must be to create something new that they cannot get without this new “payment”. Let’s create what Hollywood would call “extended footage” on DVDs and I think we could call “reporter’s notebooks.”

Here’s what I mean. Say you’re a newspaper reporter who would like to write about how femtosecond lasers could spawn a new industry. Your first problem may be that you are unable to explain the story to an editor and the story may never get done. But in the blog-centered approach I suggest, the beat reporter, who would spend about 20 percent of his or her time publishing unedited topics on the beat, would write a post on the laser that would be read by whom: engineers and science buffs? Just the sort of people that headhunting firms like Heidrick & Struggles or Korn Ferry or Nosal Partners would pay what-per-click for? I’m not sure exactly since we have not yet created nor sold these reporter’s notebooks, but my trade press source suggested it would be 100 times more than the per-click revenue that might come from another FARKin story about Spitzer’s whore.

Here’s the metaphor that describes what I’m suggesting, and this idea comes from my Navy buddy, Lee Clements of Panama City, who used to skipper a ship running supplies out to the Oil Patch in the Gulf of Mexico. Anywhere you put a derrick or a ship or any stationary object, he told me, barnacles and other sea critters start to adhere. Other critters latch on to them and soon you have a little feeding ground (I think of this as ecosystemics).

I think this ecosystem works for non-technical beats as well. Every lobbyist, PR person and interest group in creation will have to log onto our political and policy blogs, and these individuals should have a demographic profile to support something more than run-of-the-mill clicks. (By the way, let me suggest that if anybody tries this, pre-enroll all your paid subscribers in some way because if they are already paying you money for the dead-tree edition, this new product is theirs, thank you very much.)

This idea for monetizing blogs was partially inspired by a conversation I had with Kourosh Karimkhany, General Manager of Wired News, who suggested I pay attention to a concept called radical transparency which basically strikes me as this — you want to bare it all to your audience because what they want is honesty and what you want is their time, or what marketers call engagement.

So if newspapers let it all hang out, if their reporters’ notebooks are public, all those “hidden agenda” arguments evaporate — and we get better click revenues.

I’ll tell you one other thing I’ve discovered — many of my readers know a lot more than about the subjects I cover than me. I recently got some of this expert-reader help in advance of covering a development on my tech beat. As a result my story had more depth than other versions written by seasoned reporters who didn’t have this help. (My Chronicle story says the software approach in question “could tilt the balance of power in personal computing away from the industry’s reigning co-rulers, Intel and Microsoft” — which seems noteworthy and yet is absent from this newspaper account and this online news story .)

So better journalism and new revenue sources. Or we FARK ourselves. Whaddya say?

Friday: Follow the audience into the 21st Century

The Pyramid and the Cloud

(A repost that first appeared April 1.)

Collage by Doug Millison of NonHuman Communications

In Hollywood everyone has a screenplay. In New York the unpublished novel is the thing. In Silicon Valley, which I’ve covered for most of the last 16 years, it’s all about inventions. So at the risk of sounding like I’ve gone native let me tell you about two magic bullets that could cure the brain death afflicting newsrooms — the editaser and dewhisperfier.

The editaser is a smart stun gun to find and punish editors who assign stories based on stuff they’re read or seen in other media. The dewhisperfier is the antithesis of the cone-of-silence from the 1960s television series, Get Smart. It would force rank-and-file journalists to complain out loud and generally behave like the heroes of newspaper epics such as His Girl Friday, or Inherit the Wind, or The Paper.

Before I proceed let me correct any misconception that I am talking about the paper from which I am currently on vacation, and which I consider to be the Lake Woebegone of newrooms, where the editors are wise, the reporters fearless and the copy desk misses nothing.

No I am talking about mass media and I base my worries on two lessons that I learned at the Columbia University J-school (class of ‘91) where I will be attending an alumni gathering this weekend.

It was while I was at J-school that ex-New York Times correspondent James Feron gave me the idea for the editaser. Feron co-taught my home room class with science-writing professor Ken Goldstein. One day Feron mentioned that he had a Times colleague who never started an assignment without first sleuthing out from where and whom inside the building the assignment had come. As a reporter I’m trained to recognize the detail or quote that encapsulates the story. Though I wasn’t quite sure at the time what Feron was trying to say I was sure it was what one former editor, Kenneth Howe, called the objective correlative.

Let me pause to explain my protocol on naming names, which I consider a bedrock of journalism that allows a reader or viewer to better assess statements and anecdotes. As I articulate my concerns and suggest reforms for the untrusted and deeply-troubled mass media I will name former colleagues and past incidents, within the bounds of propriety. Current colleagues and issues, however, I deem protected by the obligation of employer and team loyalty. Plus I consider telling tales out of school smarmy.

But I digress. The dewhisperfier was also inspired by J-school recollections of what should have been pep talks by Big League journalists. But their body language showed more pessimism than pep. They whispered and frowned intete-a-tetes with the profs who had arranged the visits. This head-shaking puzzled me because they had the jobs we wanted and yet . . .

After I got into the corporate world, by which I mean both journalism and the business beats I cover, I realized that I was witnessing Dilbert syndrome — a form of cognitive dissonance that afflicts many professionals, including journalists, who can’t live up to their professional norms and expectations.

Take My Girl Friday whose plot revolves around editor Walter Burns’ zany efforts to keep wise-cracking reporter Hildy Johnson from quitting. What a myth! If a reporter today said, as does Hildy — “I wouldn’t cover the burning of Rome for you! — would Walter say, “Hildy, Hildy, Hildy,” or, “One less pink slip.”?

If newspapering was ever as insouciant as is portrayed in His Girl Friday it isn’t like that today. What kind of film would it be if Hildy was afraid to tell Walter to take his job and shove it. Meeting Walter’s expectations would become her career skill while Walter, basking in her talented yet submissive admiration, would become overly impressed with his own discernment. I would re-title the modern remake The Jayson Blair Project — a tale of the inherent corruptibility of the mentor-protege model.

That was an exceedingly bad manifestation of the archaic way in which we try to make journalism. What ails newsrooms today is too much incentive to look up and too little to look down. We survived Citizen Kane because there were enough Pulitzers and Knights to keep the system in balance. How many media voices are there, now? Not enough. Today’s corporate media are to news in the 21st Century like the condottieri were to war in Renaissance Italy — not terribly skilled, lacking in principle and costly.

The imperious editor, as popularized today by the Spiderman-bashing J. Jonah Jameson, is as useless as Pharaoh. His day has passed. Hierarchies were useful when we need to build pyramids. But an historic change is occurring today. The pyramid is being smothered by “The Cloud” — one of the names used to describe the Internet, that anarchic disruptor of all modern industry.

Sociologists have coined the term “network society” to describe the reorganization of wealth and work that is being driven by this new mode of organization. David Weinberger’s “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” offers a more better metaphor and read. Network society is built around small teams with low overhead and high skills. They just do it while hierarchies convene committees that meets for hours to produce minutes.

It may be a difficult cultural adjustment but newspaper execs have the fix at their fingertips — give every person in the organization the power to publish to a paper-sponsored blog (If you have not already, please glance at my similar statement on this yesterday).

Imagine over time hundreds of people in your organizations spending perhaps 20 percent of their time finding and posting items of interest. Sound like a waste? Unless you’ve shut down their browsers they’re already spending a good part of their days looking at videos, shopping or passing jokes.

Let’s go with the flow and harness some of this curiosity and restlessness. With mild discipline and some training these e-pubs will find niche readers to replace the mass audience that has dissolved into droplets. Newsrooms must draw these thousands of currents inside and then ask editors to do a job they’ll find more fulfilling than attending meetings. They will look into this array of inputs for patterns. Some of these patterns will become stories — and many of blog posts will make briefs, brites and picture boxes. Journalists will form a symbiosis with what ex-newsie Dan Gillmor calls “the former audience.”

Sure media organizations are experimenting with citizen journalism or what investors call “user-generated content” (meaning free labor). Online journalist Jonathan Dube recently described an opinion forum created by New Hampshire Public Radio and a citizen media site created by CNN. I am sure there are other examples of reaching out to readers.

But this must be more than a technology bolted-onto the pyramid. A new way of gathering and disseminating news is here. It will require a change in attitudes at the bottom and the top. Those accustomed to whispering at the base of the pyramid must reach for the clouds. Those at the apex will have to decide whether they love journalism enough to let it go.

I am confident the powers that be will do the right thing. Or perhaps I’m just hoping to keep getting paid vacation like this one. But as a backstop I’m offering open source licensing to anyone wants to help design, build and/or finance my two inventions.

(Note: The title of this posting pays homage to Eric Raymond’s 1997 essay, The Cathedral and the Bazaar, about Linux, a prime example of open source software development. Thanks also to print journalist turned blogger Tom Foremski who helped me realize that journalism is an open source activity. Foremski’s posting, “The Holy Trinity, is worth regarding in this regard.)

Tomorrow: Newspapers: don’t FARK yourselves to death.

Take me to your leader

(originally posted March 30th; reposted without change.)

 

Collage by Doug Millison of NonHuman Communications

My name is Tom Abate and I’ve been a daily newspaper reporter since 1992. I was 37 when I got my first daily job after I reinvented myself out of the typesetting industry, a craft that was then disappearing. Now part of me feels like it’s deja vu all over. The newspaper industry seems to be crumbling. Eric Alterman practically wrote its obituary in his New Yorker article Out of Print. The cartoon depicts web maven Ariana Huffington throttling the paper tigers of dead-tree journalism, and the article explains how her team is blending professional and amateur news-gatherers in a news engine that aspires to be both profitable and responsive.

But despite such gloomy reports, and the layoffs such as the one I survived last year, I see a ray of hope so powerful that I feel compelled to bring it to light.

Newspapers can do what seems to be working for the Huff Post — they can report and write with more attitude, and in a symbiosis with readers as opposed to the prevailing pontiff-to-parishoner mode. And it’s a simple fix if we have the will — push the power to publish way down into the editorial ranks through blogs.

I packed a hint of that hope into a comment that I e-mailed to media reporter Steve Outing some weeks ago. Steve used some of my thoughts in a piece he wrote forEditor & Publisher. (It’s behind E&P’s firewall but if you have access to the archives, look for “What’s Needed in 2008: Serious Newsroom Cultural Change.”). Here is my entire comment:

“I would give every daily newspaper employee, starting with reporters and editors and working down to the mail room,with a blog. And some instruction on the dos and dont’s. And then instruct the editors to read the blogs. Ideally these staff-written blogs should be a collection of detailed conversations about all the beats within the paper. And the editors should read those blogs as clues to future stories. Some issues may ripen on the blog and become stories for the mass audience in print. Astute editors will also spot trends by pulling together disparate blog items that all show, for instance, citizens creating local charities, or whatever. I tried to describe this concept at least once before as an attempt to use staff written (and ultimately non-staff blogs) as a way to develop a “capillary action” that would suck up ideas from their grassroots and contribute these locally-originated ideas into the newsroom. Because think about it, Steve: in news meetings at every paper in the nation, the national and international news wires and the entire global news gathering apparatus SHOUTS AT EDITORS. So how do papers hear their own readers over that din, if not by a method such as I propose?”

If the medium is the message, then the message of our times is interactivity. Feedback is what makes the Internet and the World Wide Web such a communications revolution. Mass media professionals have so far been fixated on the ‘Net’s global reach and how it lowers to near-zero the cost of dristribution. These characteristics, in combination with the ease of copying digital content, have hurt the incumbent mass media that pay the salaries and health plans of professional journalists. (This is a 15-year-old phenomenon called the Attention Economy that explains why the current situation in professional media is so grim.)

But most of us have been blind to the gift that came wrapped up with the unwelcome elements cited above: we can adopt a new approach to journalism that takes advantage of the interactivity of the World Wide Web to do what storytellers haven’t been able do since Gutenberg’s day — look their audiences in the eye, technologically speaking. Let’s use feedback to better match our stories to audience interests and to elicit ideas and gather content that professionals could not acquire on their own.

This vision of 21st Century journalism requires a new conception of our role as professionals that moves away from being gatekeepers ala Walter Lippmann, toward something more akin to the role of the moderator of a public conversation as envisioned by folks likes Dan Gillmor, the former San Jose Mercury News reporter turned prophet of citizen journalism. He isn’t alone. Folks like Adrian Holovatyand Lisa Williams and fellow Northern Californian J.D. Lasica are attempting, like Huffington, to reinvent journalism from outside the current sysytem through projects like EveryBlockH2Otown and Ourmedia, respectively.

This observation arises out of my experience. For most of my time in newspapers I’ve covered the technologies and personalities of Silicon Valley. Since I started blogging as MiniMediaGuy in 2005, I’ve posted more than 600 entries on media technologies, business models and criticism.

Newspapering is my second career. In the 1980s I started and sold a typesetting company and launched an alternative paper that has flourished under new owner Judy Hodgson. She bought that paper in 1990 when I decided to get into mainstream media by attending the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University.

It may be wishful thinking on my part to believe that mainstream media can reinvent themselves by adopting the tools and techniques being developed by these innovators at the edge. But I choose to believe that we can develop a news-gathering ecosystem that would weave mass media into the fabric of their communities like a carpet of sod. Those close connections would stand in contrast to today’s journalism in which stories seem like palm trees along Las Vegas Boulevard. Sure, we occasionally impress our audiences and behave like members of the Fourth Estate when we devote our “resources” to prize-winning investigations. But normally we fill our pages and broadcasts with scandal (search “Spitzer and prostitute”) or bizzare occurrences (recall when the media covered the arrest of John Mark Karr as a suspect in the JonBenet Ramsey case until whole story evaporated and he went free?). And a lot of what passes for serious news on issues of vital national interest seems more like stenography than journalism (how else do you explain the 935 false statements that we reported in a critique titled The War Card).

So, if you’re on the editorial side of the industry, I hope you are receptive to the notion that newsrooms should be more like microphones listening to their communities than megaphones blaring out whatever happens to be the message du jour, and that a new blog-centric form of daily journalism is the way to effectuate this switch. But in order to reach this new journalist-as-moderator role, we’re going to have turn away from the elitist notions of the Lippmann era which has made Organized Journalism much like Catholicism insofar as the only way to get things done in a newsroom is to kiss somebody’s, well, ring. I will argue the need for this cultural shift from top-down to bottom-up journalism tomorrow in a posting titled, “The Pyramid and the Cloud.”

If you’re on the business side of media and wonder how a blog-centered strategy does aught but increase the risks of libel, please wait for the third installment, in which I will lay out the choice I see ahead as we redesign our business model. Right now I think we’re listening to Joe Sixpack and trying to give our “product” more mass appeal. That’s a slide to the bottom we can’t win. I will argue that the smarter play is to climb the flagpole by developing niche information markets that should be lucrative and would supplement advertising revenues — an idea that was first inspired by the UC Berkeley economist who helps Google make its billiions.

The fourth and final installment in this series — which I have timed to coincide withan alumni gathering at my journalistic alma mater, the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University — will wrap up loose ends and inject a little passion into this experiment in turning my critical reporter’s lens inward on the industry that has, for 16 years, kept me living in the manner to which I’ve grown accustomed.

Tomorrow: The Pyramid and the Cloud.

Geeks, Freaks & Deadlines

This is the outline for a presentation to be delivered at the Fall 2008 conference of the National Association of Science Writers, at a panel titled: Geeks, Freaks & Deadlines: Writing about technology and the humans who love it.

Discussion

Who:

  • are you
  • are you writing for
  • are you writing about

What:

  • are your interests and specialities
  • are your skills and techniques
  • will your audience find useful

When:

  • will your news event occur
  • will your work be seen or heard
  • did it (or something similar) happen before

Where:

  • do you find ideas and find sources
  • do you have a network of contacts
  • do you find new markets and enlarge your audience

Why:

  • is this a story now
  • would an editor or reader be interested 
  • are you covering this 

How:

  • does it work
  • does it make money (or have an impact)
  • does it affect society
Examples
Just for fun:

What constitutes ‘fair use’ for mashups?

Scholars and lawyers working with under the aegis of the Communication School at American University have compiled a “Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Online Video.” That title might lead videographers, amateur film-makers and digital activists to conclude that the PDF will teach them how much copyrighte material they can legally snip and remix without getting sued into the next plane of existence by the ghost of Jack Valenti.

But the blog summary says

“This code of best practices does not tell you the limits of fair use rights.”

So what gives? I would guess that the lawyers and academicians who assembled this work are passionate about the importance of fair use, because they say things like:

“Copyright law has several features that permit quotations from copyrighted works without permission or payment, under certain conditions. Fair use is the most important of these features. It has been an important part of copyright law for more than 150 years. Where it applies, fair use is a right, not a mere privilege. In fact, as the Supreme Court has pointed out, fair use keeps copyright from violating the First Amendment. As copyright protects more works for longer periods than ever before, it makes new creation harder. As a result, fair use is more important today than ever before.”

Such strong words practically exhort a person to test the limits of fair use at a time when copyright is being misapplied even by the Associated Press, which ought to be safe-guarding free speech instead of licensing it out in five-word increments

But offering legal advice exposes its issuer to liability and culpability because, to quote the old saw, the devil is always in the details. Which remark, I hasten to add, does not mean to injure or defame the reputation of Jack Valenti by insinuating that he is or ever was the devil, or the devil’s agent or assign, or that Jack Valenti might be, even now, sweating in that eternal hot tub down below, with a Margarita in one hand and a babe in the other, as he barks instructions into his Bluetooth telling the Hollywood law firm of  Letz Fukem Butgood to prosecute another batch of college students for illegal downloads.

I suspect that a careful study of this Best Practices guide, and its associated links, will help you understand how other audio-visual creators have made use of this vital principle of fair use without losing their lives, their fortunes,or their sacred honors. Yet.

 

 

Miscellaneous musings for a TGIF Friday

It’s the debt, stupid,” says Poynter Institute business commentator Rick Edmonds, who chides newspaper chains that grew through debt-financed acquisitions, such as McClatchy, Media News and the new Sam Zell empire. They will have a hard time in this downturn as they try to pay huge interest charges with declining cash flows. He contrasts these expansionists to:

some companies (that) have had the good sense or good fortune not to buy any newspapers this decade. That hasn’t earned them favor on Wall Street, but it does leave a lot more maneuvering room for transformation in the next several years . . . That group would include, among others, A.H. Belo, E.W. Scripps, the Washington Post and New York Times companies, and Cox.
* * *
Speaking of Sam Zell and his new Tribune media company, Tribune chief innovation officer Lee Abrams has some good ideas in his “15 points that’ll grow newspapers.” But he also delivered them in a rather breathless and some golly gee whiz manner which is lampooned by former newspaper columnist turned blogger Nancy Nall Derringer.
* * *
Despite the debt burden on McClatchy, the chain continues to win praise for its Washington and foreign affairs reporting. Robert Niles, former editor of Online Journalism Review, gives McClatchy its kudos in an interview published just before he wrote a goodbye column saying the publication is closed. Good luck — to us all!

Union tremor shakes Bay Area print media

Pro-union vote in eastern region of SF Bay

Editorial employees at seven newspapers in the San Francisco East Bay voted 104-92 to certify the Newspaper Guild as their bargaining agent with MediaNews Group. The San Francisco Chronicle and the MediaNews papers wrote short articles (see Chron or the Hayward Daily Review) devoid of analysis.

I am a Chronicle staff reporter who supports the organizing drive out of self interest, if nothing else. MediaNews is a debt-leveraged newspaper chain built by Dean Singleton. MediaNews got a loan from Hearst to acquire the East Bay papers from McClatchy, the newspaper firm which bought out Knight-Ridder. MediaNews recently refinanced its debt to eliminate reports to the Securities and Exchange Commission, which will allow it to operate more privately and without disclosures of margins or other factors.

Hearst Corp. and MediaNews have business relationships that complicate the notion of competition between them. As Peter Scheer of the First Amendment Coalition write two years ago:

Hearst, owner of the Chronicle, which will be MediaNews’ primary competitor in the Bay Area . . . Hearst will also become a MediaNews investor and partner . . . Regulators are suspicious whenever they see ostensible competitors engaging in transactions that could cause them to be less competitive with each other—or, worse, that could facilitate an agreement to fix prices or divide up the market.

For sheer balance of power reasons it behooves editorial employees on both sides of San Francisco Bay to have whatever (diminishing) clout comes from spreading the union on both sides of the Bay. But the margin of the vote is not overwhelming. It suggests that MediaNews workers wonder whether a union will do anything more than piss off the bosses and cost more than $500 a year in without preventing the implosion of the newspaper industry.

All valid objections. Nevertheless being represented will make a difference in how we do journalism in this period of retreat. Let’s look at staffing numbers. In 2000, when the staffs of the Chronicle and Examiner were merged, they totaled about 550 reporters. I am now one of about 300 surviving Chronicle journalists.

Across the Bay, the seven papers affected by the union vote employ about 225 journalists. So the Chronicle alone had a bigger editorial staff in 2000 than the combined headcount of the the seven MediaNews papers plus the Chron.The other big regional paper is the San Jose Mercury News. It is owned by MediaNews and is already unionized by the Guild. It now has about 170 persons on staff. I believe its staff peaked around 400 persons during the dot.com era.

Newspaper editorial staffs have been cut more or less in half in the last several years. How do shrinking staffs cover the region? How much say does the staff have in making decisions? That is as much at stake in the union vote as the hourly rate or the number of vacation days. As a union member I have the rarely exercised but important prerogative of taking my byline off a story. That allows me some final say over the journalism that goes out under my name. How much is that worth? And can the union even get a deal from MediaNews?

I don’t know but I am a survivor of the 1994 newspaper strike. I had only been in newspapers 2 years. People understand these jobs are tough to get and I was not happy about the walkout nor altogether behind the union position (for instance at that point the Guild opposed putting cameras into the hands of reporters; I thought that foolish). But we got back in the door and with a decent contract.

But before that strike settled, management was on the verge of bringing in replacement workers supplied by the Chicago Tribune. So I was told by a former management executive, The Trib, then under different ownership, was prepared to send in squads of out-of-town journalists to replace the striking locals.

That never happened. But with the financial relationship between Hearst and MediaNews already, I think reporters on either side of the San Francisco Bay could one day be told to work as strike breakers. Or maybe they never get to make a choice. They are told: write a story about X, Y or Z — never leave their desk, never cross a picket line and by a management edict their work appear in a supposedly competing paper.

What a world! What could a union do? The question to ask, I think, is what would management do in the absence of any check on its power?